Over the past couple of months, we’ve been looking at ethical issues of e-mail misuse, as well as misuse of the Internet. When I’ve met up with readers in various places, they’re grateful for some guidance on how to set policy so employees know how to separate business needs and uses of electronic communication and information from personal uses. So often, these topics can be confusing, and businesses can get into trouble without clear Internet policies.

But there’s one larger issue that can cause serious problems: the misuse of intellectual property. It’s easy to load and/or copy images and text onto a workplace computer for business uses—cutting and pasting for illustration or marketing activities or reports. Since we live in a knowledge economy, we participate in “information commerce.” We can become careless in our use of the information available to us, or we don’t understand what is or is not proprietary. Maybe we do understand the property doesn’t belong to us, but our use is limited or serves as a shortcut to getting the job done. Or others use the intellectual property of our business—or our own materials—and they infringe on our rights. These infringements can be costly. They’re evidence of a major ethical issue: misuse of property.

In one workplace, a graphic designer revised a product sales booklet with new text and design. There were several photos in the document that previously had been purchased but on a one-time-use basis. The designer liked the photos and simply put them into the new booklet without notifying the photographer. When the designer wrote an e-mail to thank the photographer and mentioned the photos worked well in the new booklet, the photographer shot back an e-mail saying he had never been notified that the photos would be re-used, and he never gave permission. He also insisted on a fee for another use of the set. The designer couldn’t understand why this matter had become an issue. Yet it was an issue for one reason: the company didn’t own this property.

When it comes to the use of text—both on paper and digitally—the ethical issue becomes murky. Older print material—from the early 20th century and further back—is considered to be in the public domain. Then there’s fair use of material under copyright protection, and there’s copyrighted material. Paraphrase or a brief and clearly identified quote can be okay—but not full-scale copying without permission. Part of the challenge, then, is to determine whether an individual or company owns the material an employee wants to use.

In my experience, people copy first and ask questions later—if they ever do ask. Recently, a Harvard University undergrad, Kaavya Viswanathan, was accused of plagiarism and copyright infringement in a spectacular way. Her popular book, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, bears striking similarities to books by three other authors. She claims the resemblances are “unintentional and unconscious,” but others wonder whether she copied those works in more than a creative way. Other authors have been accused of similar misuse of intellectual property.

Many other stories can be told in a variety of media: Disney’s appropriation and misuse of the animation images of others and Napster’s copying and sharing of music, to name but two instances of what happens every day and in many ways in business. Given the legal risks—and not just the ethical issues—in unauthorized copying, tangible or digital, managers need to develop clear policies on the use of materials not generated by the company or organization. They also need to create policies to protect employee-created materials for the company so other companies can’t use them and so employees can’t take them for their own uses either.

This lesson is hard to learn. We’ve lost the protocols for seeking permission to use other people’s intellectual or tangible property. Two policy steps are important for managers to implement. First, a form letter on paper or in e-mail format needs to be developed for an employee to ask permission for use of images, text, or sound if there’s any question about ownership. Secondly, employees must disclose when they’re using other people’s property for personal or company use. IBI